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       Fledgling, p.13

           Octavia E. Butler

  She turned back to face me and caught my expression. “You don’t want to do it,” she said. She was crying again, her body stiff with anger.

  “Of course I don’t,” I said, and I slid into bed next to her. “Stefan has posted olfactory keep-out signs all over you. Didn’t you ever wonder why Ina can live together without going after one another’s symbionts?”

  “It happens sometimes.”

  “But only with new symbionts, right?”

  “You have amnesia, and yet you know that?”

  “I’m alive, Celia. My senses work. I can’t help but know.” I unbuttoned her shirt to bare her neck. “What I don’t know is how this will be for you. Not good, maybe.”

  “Scares me,” she admitted.

  I nodded. “Bear it. Bear it and keep still. Later, when I can, I’ll make it up to you.”

  She nodded. “You remind me of Stefan a little. He told me I reminded him of you.”

  I bit her. I was more abrupt than I should have been, but her scent was repelling me more and more. I had to do it quickly if I were going to be able to do it at all.

  She gave a little scream, then frantically tried to push me away, tried to struggle free, tried to hit me … I had to use both my arms and my legs to hold her still, had to wrap myself all around her. If she’d been any bigger, I would have had to knock her unconscious. In fact, that might have been kinder. I kept waiting for her to accept me, the way strangers did when I climbed through their windows and bit them. But she couldn’t. And strangely, it never occurred to me to detach for a moment and order her to be still. I would have done that with a stranger, but I never thought to do it with her.

  She managed not to scream anymore after that first strangled sound, but she struggled wildly, frantically until I stopped taking her blood. I had only tasted her, taking much less than a full meal. It was as much as I could stand. I hoped it was enough.

  I gave her a moment to understand that I had stopped, and when she stopped struggling, I let her go. “Did I hurt you?” I asked.

  She was crying silently. She cringed as I leaned over to lick the bite and take the blood that was still coming. She put her hands on my shoulders and pushed but managed not to push hard. I went on licking the bite. She needed that to help with healing.

  “I always liked that so much when Stefan did it,” she said.

  “It should be enjoyable,” I said, although I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. I was doing what seemed to be my duty. “And it helps your wounds heal quickly and cleanly. It will be enjoyable again someday soon.”

  She relaxed a little, and I thought I might be reaching her. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe you’ve got some kind of keep-out sign on you, too—as far as I’m concerned, I mean. I panicked. I couldn’t control myself. Your bite didn’t hurt, but it was … it was horrible.” She drew away from me with a shudder.

  “But do you feel better?” I asked.


  “You’ve stopped shaking.”

  “Oh. Yeah. Thanks … I guess.”

  “I don’t know exactly how long it will be before we can take pleasure in one another, but I think it’s important that you do feel better now. Next time will be easier and more comfortable.” Now that I’d bitten her, it would. It seemed best to tell her that.

  “Hope so.”

  I left her alone in the huge bed. She wouldn’t have been able to sleep if I’d stayed. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep if I’d stayed.

  I went to the bathroom, washed, and then just stayed there. I knew I had to go to Brook soon. The longer I waited, the harder it would be. Maybe Brook would have an easier time since she hadn’t seemed so needy. Or perhaps it would be worse because she’d been with Iosif for so long. Was twenty-two years a long time when she would live to be maybe two hundred? If only I knew what I was doing.

  I sat on the side of the bathtub for a long time, hearing Celia cry until she fell asleep, hearing Wright moving around the kitchen, hearing Brook breathing softly in one of the bedrooms. She was not asleep, but she was not moving around either. She was sitting or lying down—probably waiting for me.

  I got up and went to her.

  “I thought you could wait,” she said when she saw me. “If you wanted to, you could wait until tomorrow. I mean, I’m all right now. I’m not getting the shakes or anything.”

  I didn’t sigh. I didn’t say anything. I only went to the bed where she lay atop the bedspread and lay down beside her. Her scent was so much like my father’s that if I closed my eyes, it was almost as though I were lying in bed beside Iosif, and even though I had begun to trust Iosif and even to like him, I had not found him appetizing in any way at all.

  “We will get through this,” I said. “What you feel now will end.”

  She sighed and closed her eyes. “I hope so,” she said. “Do it.”

  I did it. And when I was finished, I left her crying into a pillow. She was no more able to take comfort from me than Celia had been, and there was no comfort for me in either of them. I went out, hoping to find the comfort I needed with Wright. He was in the living room, eating a ham sandwich and a bag of microwave popcorn and watching a television that I had not noticed before. He aimed the remote and stopped the program as I came in.

  “No cable,” he said, “but movies and old TV shows galore.” He gestured toward the shelves of tapes and DVDs in the cabinet. Then, after a moment, he asked, “How are things?”

  I shook my head and went to sit next to him on the arm of his chair. I had worried that he would draw away from me, resent my bringing two strangers into our family, but he reached up, lifted me with a hand under one of my arms, and put me on his lap. I made myself comfortable there, his arms around me. I sighed with contentment.

  “Things were horrible,” I said. “But they’re better now.”

  That was when I heard the people outside, first two of them, then, as I sat up and away from Wright’s chest and the beat of his heart, I heard more. I couldn’t tell how many.

  Then I smelled the gasoline.


  I turned to speak very softly into Wright’s ear. “The killers are here.” I covered his mouth with my hand. “They’re here now. They have guns and gasoline. Go wake Brook and Celia—quietly!—and look after them. Keep them safe. Watch the side door. When I clear a way, get them out of here. Don’t worry about me. Don’t try to help me. Go. Now.”

  I slid off his lap, avoided his grasping hands, grabbed my blanket and glasses, and ran for the side door. There were men—human males—at the front and back doors, and at least one was heading for the side door at the end of the hall, but no one reached it before I slipped out of it and down the three concrete steps to the ground.

  The men were spreading gasoline all around the house, quietly splashing it on the wood siding so that it puddled on the ground. I threw my blanket on the ground alongside an oak tree that was losing its leaves. It was probably overhanging the house too much to survive what was to come. It gave me shade, though, and kept me from burning. I put the glasses on, then turned toward the sounds of a man who was approaching from the front yard, spreading his gasoline as quietly as he could.

  He was like the deer I had killed—just prey. He was my first deer that day. Before he realized I was there, I was on his back, one hand over his nose and mouth, my legs around him, riding him, my other arm around his head under his chin. I broke his neck, and an instant later, as he collapsed, I tore out his throat. I wanted no noise from him.

  He’d had a gun—a big strange-looking one. I picked it up by the barrel, thrust it into the house through the door I’d come out of. Then I moved the dead man’s gasoline can to the oak tree.

  Another man was coming around from the backyard, and he was my second deer, as quickly dispatched as the first. It was almost a relief to use my speed and strength without worrying about hurting someone. And it was good to kill these men who had surely taken part in killing my families.

  Someone in th
e house opened the side door a crack, and I beckoned with both hands, calling them out. That same instant, someone threw something through two or three of the windows, smashing them. Someone in the backyard lit the gasoline, and flames roared around the house on every side but the one I had cleared. Through a window, I could see that there was fire inside the house, too.

  Wright, Celia, and Brook spilled noisily out of the house, but the roar of the fire probably drowned out the noise they made at least as far as the gunmen were concerned. Wright had the gun I had left for him. I snatched up the second man’s gun and thrust it into Celia’s hands. Of the two women, I thought she would be more likely to know how to use it. She started to say something, but I put a hand over her mouth.

  She nodded and positioned herself so that she and Wright had Brook and I between them. She watched the front while Wright watched the back.

  I went to Wright who was edging away from the heat of the fire, but still looking toward the backyard. He glanced back at me.

  I touched his mouth briefly with my fingers to keep him silent, then stepped ahead of him, acting on what I had heard and he had not. For the second time that day, I had to evade his hands. One more gunman was coming around the house, around the fire at a run, perhaps to see what had happened to his friends. He was my third deer. Best not to make noise until we had to.

  How many gunmen were left? How many had there been? There hadn’t been time for me to listen and estimate, but I tried to think back to what I had heard. Then my concentration was shattered by the sudden, deep, quick spitting of Celia’s gun. She had shot a man who had come around the house from the front.

  The man fell, and even if no one had heard the strange spitting sound of Celia’s gun, someone must have seen him go down. The element of surprise was gone.

  I snatched the gun of the man I’d just killed, shouted to the others, and all of us sprinted for the shelter of trees. They would give us cover when the other gunmen came to see what the shooting was about.

  We all reached the trees in time. I was with Brook behind the oak, which, high above, was already catching fire where it overhung the house. I gave her the gun and she frowned, studying it. Meanwhile, Wright and Celia were already firing. I could see men firing back from both the front and the backyards, but they could not aim very well because they lacked cover where they were. We had trees, but they had only the burning house. If they had tried to reach trees that might have shielded them, Wright or Celia would have gotten a clear shot at them. If we survived, I would get Wright and Celia to teach me to shoot.

  Then there was the sound of sirens in the distance. I heard it and froze, wondering how we could avoid being caught either by the gunmen or by the police. Then Brook looked up from her gun, and I realized she was beginning to hear the sirens, too.

  And the gunmen heard them. The shooting from the other side dribbled away to silence. Wright and Celia stopped their very careful firing because suddenly they had no targets.

  I could hear the remaining gunmen running, their footsteps going away from us, toward the street. I showed myself, walking out away from the tree, providing a target for anyone who had stayed behind.

  No one shot me.

  I ran to the garage, lifted one of the doors, and glanced toward the side of the house, where I hoped Wright, Celia, and Brook were paying attention.

  They were coming, all three of them, at a run.

  I opened the other garage door and waited until they were all in the cars. Then I got in and we fled.

  We fled slowly. Wright said we shouldn’t speed, shouldn’t do anything that might make us memorable to anyone who saw us or bring us to the attention of the police. He was leading this time so his judgment kept Brook’s speed down. There were no neighbors near enough to see the house or report that we’d left it (and left several corpses) just after the fire began. In fact, the guns had made so little noise that I wondered whether human ears had heard them with the houses so far apart. It was almost certainly the smoke that had caught someone’s attention. That meant the emergency call probably went to the fire department. Firemen would arrive, begin to put out the fire, find the bodies, and then call the police. They would also find the gas cans. We had to avoid getting involved in the investigation that would surely follow. I had seen too many police programs on Wright’s television to believe there was any story we could tell the police about this that would keep us out of jail.

  “Where are we going?” I asked Wright.

  “God,” he said. “I don’t know. Back to the cabin for now, I guess.”

  “No,” I said. “Your relatives are there in the front house. Let’s not lead anyone to them.”

  “Do you think that’s likely? Whoever these people are, they don’t know anything about me.” He shook his head. What he had been through seemed to be too much for him suddenly. “Whoever they are … Who the hell are they? Why did they try to kill us? I’ve never shot at anyone before—never even wanted to.”

  “We’re all alive,” I said.

  He glanced at me. “Yeah.”

  “We should find a place to stop when we’ve gotten a few miles farther away. We need to talk with the others, find out if they know of another place where we can stay for a while.”

  “Any place they know is probably as dangerous as the place we just left.”

  I sighed and nodded. “We need to be far away from all this,” I said. “I can’t believe that Brook was with Iosif for twenty-two years, and yet she knows of no relatives but my mothers, no friends or business associates.”

  “I was wondering about that,” he said. “Do you think she’s lying?”

  I thought about that for a moment, then said, “I don’t think so. I just think she knows more than she realizes she knows. Maybe Iosif told her not to remember or not to share what she knows with anyone outside his family. I mean, as things are, I don’t know where to begin a search for more of my kind. I don’t even know whether I should be looking for them. I don’t want to get people killed, but I have to do something. I have to find out who these murderers are and why they want to kill us. And I have to find a way to stop them.” I paused, then fidgeted uncomfortably. I already had the beginnings of a burn on my face and arms, and had left my jacket in the house. “Wright, would you be cold if I used your jacket?”

  “What?” He glanced at me, then said, “Oh.” I helped him struggle out of his jacket, pulling it off of him while he drove. Once I had it, I covered myself with it as though it were the blanket that I had lost, probably leaving it beside the oak tree. The jacket was warm and smelled of Wright and was a very comfortable thing to be wrapped in.

  “You and I are conspicuous together,” he said. “But you could go into a clothing store with Celia and pass as her daughter. You could get yourself some clothes that fit and another jacket with a hood, maybe a pair of gloves and some sunglasses that fit your face.”

  “All right. We should get food, too, for the three of you. It should be things you can open and eat right here in the car. I’m not sure when we’ll dare to settle somewhere.”

  “I should be back at work on Monday.”

  I looked at him, then looked away. “I know. I’m sorry. I don’t have any idea when this will be over.”

  He drove silently for a few minutes. We were, I realized, still headed southwest toward Arlington. Once we arrived in Arlington, he seemed to know his way around. He took us straight to a supermarket where we could buy the food we needed. Once we were parked, we moved over to the larger car to talk with Celia and Brook.

  “Don’t you need to sleep?” Brook asked me as soon as we got into the backseat. “Doesn’t the fact that it’s day bother you at all?”

  “I’m tired,” I admitted. “You’re probably all tired.”

  “But don’t you sleep during the day?” Celia asked. It occurred to me that they had been discussing me. Better that than terrifying themselves over the fact that several men had just tried to murder us.

  “I prefe
r to sleep during the day,” I said, “but I don’t have to. I can sleep whenever I’m tired.”

  Brook looked at Celia. “That’s why we’re not dead,” she said. “They came during the day, thinking that any Ina in the house would be asleep, completely unconscious.”

  “Why didn’t it help her save her mothers?” Celia asked.

  Brook looked at me.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “Have either of you ever heard of a community being destroyed the way my parents’ communities were? I mean, has it happened before anywhere else?”

  Both women shook their heads. Brook said, “Not that I know of.”

  “Maybe that’s it then.” I thought for a moment. “If no one was expecting trouble, probably no one was keeping watch. Why would they? I don’t know whether I usually slept during the day. My mothers did, so I probably did, too, just because it was more convenient to be up when they were. I’ll bet the symbionts had adapted to a nocturnal way of life just as symbionts had in Iosif’s community. But I don’t know. That’s the trouble; I don’t know anything.” I looked at Brook. “You must have spent time at my mothers’ community. Wasn’t everyone nocturnal?”

  “Pretty much,” she answered. “Your eldermothers had three or four symbionts who did research for them. They were often awake during the day. I guess it didn’t help.”

  I looked at Celia. “Did Stefan always sleep during the day?”

  “He said he got stupid if he didn’t sleep,” she answered. “He got sluggish and clumsy.”

  “Iosif had to sleep,” Brook said. “He would go completely unconscious wherever he happened to be when the sun came up. And once he got to sleep, it was impossible to wake him up until after sundown.”

  Wright put his arm around me. “You’re definitely the new, improved model,” he said.

  I nodded. “I think maybe someone’s decided there shouldn’t be a new, improved model.”

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